Every Minnesotan is owed the opportunity to pursue and obtain completion of a higher education credential regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status.
This is the mission driving the work at Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE). In fiscal year 2017, OHE, a cabinet level state agency under the former Gov. Mark Dayton, was allocated $336 million from the State of Minnesota budget to operate according to the tenets of OHE’s mission. This investment is deemed critical for operations, as the mission reads, “in order to enhance our democracy, the State's economic vitality, and individual quality of life.” The monetary investment that fuels the work is necessary, but the human capital that puts democracy into action is what makes OHE thrive internally and for every Minnesotan. More specifically there are three African-American women behind the scenes at OHE that serve as a visual representation of post-secondary and professional success for diverse communities impacted most by disparities. These individuals are in critical leadership posts.
Winnie Sullivan had relocated her family to Minnesota more than 20 years ago when she started her career with the state. She planned to take the first few months to get acclimated with the state and culture, however, in less than two months from her arrival an opportunity for employment presented itself and she took it. For six months she worked in a temporary position with the Minnesota Secretary of State. As that assignment came to an end she landed a full-time permanent position with the Department of Administration. By her seventh year at the agency she worked her way up from receptionist to a position within the commissioner’s office. After 10 years of establishing relationships and broadening her network she received a call from Dayton’s office with an opportunity to work for the governor’s chief of staff. As a liaison for cabinet level positions and the governor’s office, she established relationships with various commissioners.
Larry Pogemiller, the commissioner of Minnesota Office of Higher Education, at the time, contacted her regarding an opening for the agency’s deputy commissioner position. Sullivan thought about it, talked with her family, and determined she has always had a passion for education. In June 2017 she began her position as Deputy Commissioner of OHE. She believed this opportunity would put her in position to provide aide and access to underrepresented groups.
“My first perspective was that there was no direct contact with the students. However, we provide services without direct contact by helping students go to college and find the best fit,” said Sullivan.
Pogemiller marveled at the qualities and experience that make Sullivan critical to her position at OHE.
“She got her college degree later in life after raising her family. She is now managing the entire operations of the agency. She has toughness that is exceptional, and she has the ability to provide bad news to somebody in a way that they thank her. She has an exceptional ability to read people that she manages and provide to them whatever assistance they need,” said Pogemiller.
Sullivan manages the operations of the agency by serving as the Human Resources director and supervising 13 managers. Two managers under Sullivan’s direction, Nekey Oliver, Grants and Government Relations manager and Ashley Booker, OHE Get Ready program director, maintain key functions at OHE that control the external and internal reputation of the agency through messaging, relationships, local and federal funding and policy.
In 2012 Oliver was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, in the Master of Education in Youth Development Leadership program. She was participating in outreach initiatives organized by her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. when she learned about an internship position at OHE from Dr. Nancy Walters, the now retired Competitive Grants manager at OHE. Oliver was hired as an intern, while continuing her graduate school studies.
In the past six years her trajectory has made monumental strides. From intern she went on to become a program assistant, legislative liaison, and now Grants and Government Relations manager. She is proud of an early assignment that allowed her to cut her teeth in the work. She had opportunity to develop a major proposal with Commissioner Pogemiller and present it to Governor Dayton.
“I helped Commissioner Pogemiller reframe and rename the equity package proposal (a package of equity grants being proposed for additional funding) so it would be sellable to the governor’s office. The commissioner let me go into the meeting to pitch all of our proposals to the governor. The governor not only decided to fund our request but he decided to put $20 million into it. The legislature didn’t do it, but the governor did it. I was really excited about that happening,” said Oliver.
Keen observation is a skill that Ashley Booker has utilized as she climbed the ranks at OHE to her current position as program director of Get Ready, a federally-funded college and career readiness program administered through OHE. The program is geared towards students who are low-income, and those from communities of color and indigenous communities. From 2012 to 2018 Booker has catapulted in leadership while serving in different capacities for the Get Ready program, from evaluation specialist to program development manager, to her current role as program director.
“I provide oversight for the Get Ready program. I represent our office to the U.S. Department of Education as the project director. I am the one that has to be present at all the federal meetings to make sure we are in compliance with the grant, and to make sure we are being good stewards of the money we receive,” said Booker.
She is also responsible for participation in the College and Career Readiness Evaluation Consortium (CCREC) a multi-state evaluation project for Gear UP, a federal grant program for states and partnerships, administered by the Department of Education. Booker is the chair of the CCREC executive committee. When she became program director in 2016 she revamped the program.
“It was a very hierarchical, prescriptive program in the sense that direction kind of came from the top down. Decisions were made from the top down and there wasn’t much of an opportunity from those in the field engaging in the work, working with the populations directly, to weigh in,” said Booker. “There was no room for students, family, and school staff at the table. I restructured the division really from the top down. I created positions that I thought needed to be there that weren’t, and I looked for opportunities to empower people that I felt had been written off because they challenged things. When people feel that they own the program and they have the power and influence to make changes that need to be made that improves team cohesion. To lead is to provide vision, direction and guidance to the team but also to make sure they are growing and evolving and doing what I can to support them even if it means you don’t stay here.”
While Pogemiller transitions from his post under the Dayton administration he reflects on the leadership Sullivan, Oliver and Booker bring to the agency that transcends their current roles.
“In their life experiences and the way they do their work, they personify the entire notion of equity in our community,” said Pogemiller. “They are exceptionally talented women who just happen to be women of color. So, for the state, it’s like a trifecta. The ability to listen, read situations, and understand people are attributes they bring to their roles as managers. Some of that you can learn but some of that you are born with. In the instance of these three women they are born leaders.”
Booker has a request expressed by all three leaders and others in the enterprise for the Gov. Tim Walz administration.
“Even though we might be diversifying the state’s workforce we should not become complacent. We really need to do the work necessary to change the culture and climate at these different agencies to retain good talent and ensure the folks we have been charged to serve are represented so we don’t lose them. I just hope that this remains a priority,” said Booker.